Retired warriors fight biggest battle yet
The Independent Florida Sun
What: Class Act Group rally at U.S. Supreme Court.
When: Feb. 12; 10 a.m. to12:30 p.m., remarks by Ret. Air Force Col. George Day and other dignitaries; 1 p.m., march to Supreme Court.
Where: Assemble at Reserve Officers Association, 1 Constitution Ave., N.E., Washington, D.C., then march to Supreme Court.
Details: 850-664-6324; www.classact-lawsuit.com.
George "Bud" Day spent 67 months as a prisoner of war in Vietnam after his jet was shot down. The retired Air Force colonel is the most highly decorated officer since Gen. Douglas MacArthur, holding every significant combat award and more than 70 military decorations and awards in all.
Today, the 76-year-old Day says he faces his toughest foe yet - the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Fort Walton Beach attorney and Shalimar resident, who served in the Marine Corps during WW II, began battling his government seven years ago. In 1995, President Bill Clinton broke his pledge to provide free lifetime health benefits for an estimated 1.7 million World War II and Korean conflict veterans, who served 20 or more years. Now, many military retirees must pay about $60 a month for Medicare, which covers about 80 percent of expenses.
Day and his Class Act Group have led the fight to restore the health benefits. In November, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., overturned a February 2001 decision by the U.S. District Court to reinstate health benefits. But in a 9-4 decision, the appeals court conceded military recruiters promised free lifetime health care but ruled the assurances were not valid because Congress never passed a law backing them up.
Now, Day is taking the fight to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court could hear the case in late 2003 or early 2004, if at all. A rally is planned for Feb. 12 on the Supreme Court steps to bring attention to the issue that could become a factor in the 2004 presidential race.
In an interview with The Independent Florida Sun, Day talks about the slim chances of winning a Supreme Court review, President George W. Bush's ignorance of the issue and possible relief coming from Congress.
SUN: How important is it for military retirees to show up at the rally?
DAY: We have quite a few buses, planes and trains coming in from Pensacola, Panama City and around the South. We'll have several hundred, if not several thousand there. It's important. We're not there to bad mouth the court, Congress or the president. We're going up there to demand some justice from all three branches. We want to make our story known.
SUN: Why have you led this fight since 1995?
DAY: For me, it's just a matter of basic fairness. I am outraged that our government did this to this group. We speak English and many other languages across this country and Europe. If it were not for our men and women in World War II, we'd all be speaking German. I'm upset this group of veterans would be penalized like they are, particularly when we're talking about creating World War II and Korean War memorials in Washington, D.C., and Tom Brokaw's book, "The Greatest Generation," is on the shelves. How can you balance the budget on the back of these old people who don't have a job, are too old to work and are on fixed incomes?
SUN: Providing health care for the nation's 1.7 million military retirees costs about $1.4 billion a year, the Justice Department estimates. Why did the Clinton administration eliminate health benefits?
DAY: It's really not understandable. My gut feeling is that Clinton had a lot of other priorities other than vets. He figured we would not respond. I decided I would.
SUN: Why has President George W. Bush failed to restore the benefits? After all, Bush said, "Promises made to our veterans will be promises kept."
DAY: He campaigned on that slogan, "promises made, promises kept." That was for retired vets. That was (Arizona senator) John McCain's slogan that Bush preempted after the South Carolina primaries. I've discussed this with the president in person at a Medal of Honor presentation (in June 2002). But he did not really understand where I was coming from. I didn't feel he had the big picture. He thought it was more a Veterans Affairs problem. He didn't seem to completely grasp it, and I was embarrassing my wife. We were supposed to just pose for a photo op and move on. I could see it would take a lot more explaining. But I had to move on. I was holding up the line.
SUN: Will Congress pass a bill and restore the health benefits this year?
DAY: There are three bills in Congress right now. Congressman Jeff Miller said he would back the "Keep Promises" bill. (South Dakota senator) Tim Johnson and John McCain support it. (Massachusetts senator) John Kerry is speaking on our behalf. The response from our Washington politicians has been very good. How soon it will get enacted I don't know. I imagine it will not be long before we get relief. This is a serious problem. Not one military service has been able to make its recruitment goals. Grandfathers are telling their grandchildren they can't go because they can't trust their own government.
SUN: What are the chances the Supreme Court will rule on this?
DAY: I filed the petition for review on Friday (Jan. 24). The reasons to hear this case are extremely high. There are 6,000 appeals a year. Out of those, about 2,000 are paid petitions, which ours is. Of the 2,000, the court normally hears about 200 cases. Our chances on this whole thing are good. We have a conflict in both the way a statute is being interpreted and in legal decisions. Also, we're involved in a war situation again. Our young boys in the military now going overseas are still hearing that promise of lifetime health care. We are a sizeable group - 1.7 million. And the court will take a look at this because it would be the largest case on veterans' benefits in 70 years, since Lynch vs. U.S. in 1932, which is considered the cornerstone of veterans' benefits. So, there are significant reasons to hear it. This needs to get fixed.
SUN: How's public opinion on this issue?
DAY: The Boston Globe and several major newspapers have said this is a bad deal. The only detractor I'm aware of is the U.S. Justice Department. They've been zealous in fighting us and have been our worst critic. We have a number of billboards we put up recently in Washington, D.C., and near Bush's ranch in Texas, making people aware of this situation. We have a hearse driving around D.C. as a sign of the government's response to World War II and Korean veterans' medical care. We're trying to get more information out on this than anything else.